I thought she was a child. Beng and I were walking to the hospital to visit a friend, when I saw a blond, white girl sitting under a sign. As I got closer, I realized she was a grown woman and probably Russian. I guessed she was a streetwalker, but her hair was disheveled and her jean shorts and long sleeved pullover were not working clothes. Her brown eyes were big for her face, but she wore no make up and looked very worn down and distraught. I asked her name and where she was from – sure enough “Natasha” was Russian.
I could tell she wasn’t going to be talkative, but I sat down next to her and asked, “Have you eaten?” She didn’t look at me, but shook her head no. Then looking down she said very quietly, “No money.” I told her that I was going to visit my friend but if she wanted to come with us we could buy her dinner. She touched her leg and said she couldn’t walk. Four days ago her knee had swollen and she couldn’t put weight on her leg. Beng suggested we take her to the coffee shop nearby. Natasha agreed and I tried to support her as we walked. She was hesitant to accept the support and kept saying, “It’s okay. I can do.” I reached out to assist her but she wouldn’t put her weight on me.
Natasha took a seat in the coffee shop. Her head was down but I saw the tears streaming down her cheeks. Putting my arm around her shoulders I gave her a gentle safe hug. She didn’t respond but looked away embarrassed. Beng ordered the coffee she had asked for, and bought her a banana muffin. From the looks of her, she should have been starving but she only nibbled at the food while fighting off the pressure to cry. I tried to ask a few more questions without being intrusive- a little about family, a little about how she first came to Thailand, and an important one – whether or not she had her passport. She said she did, but her visa had expired two and a half years ago. She was staying in a room just down the street but she hadn’t paid the bill. Natasha has no friends, but she has a cat. The cat, she said, saved her life and she doesn’t want to leave it behind. The cat had no food either.
Natasha apologized for her English. I asked if she would be willing to speak with Anya in Russian and handed her the phone. Even in Russian, Natasha only answered short sentences, sometimes just one word, and then handed the phone back to me. Anya was 45 minutes away but decided to come talk with her in person. Natasha had pawned her phone and her laptop already so there was no way to stay in contact with her once we left. We decided Beng would wait with her while I went on to the hospital to visit my friend.
The rain had started pouring down and the traffic was really bad. Beng called me and said Natasha was getting restless and she didn’t know how long she could keep her there. Natasha asked some people nearby for a cigarette. Smoking calmed her down for a bit. I hurried back and tried again to fill the awkward silence. I found out that Natasha is 32 but has no children. When she came to Thailand 3 years ago she started by dancing in one of the Russian nightclubs in Pattaya. Natasha had a noticeable scratch on her forehead. I asked her what happened. She answered, “A fight. I don’t want to talk about it.” I noticed more bruises on her body as well. I told her that Anya, who was on her way, is very nice. She said, “I don’t meet nice people long time.”
When Anya arrived they spoke quite a bit together in Russian. Anya summarized that Natasha was interested in our shelter and offer for assistance, but didn’t trust us. Natasha looked at me and said, “I’m sorry. I’m confused.” In Russian she wrestled with why we were offering her help. We were strangers. No one had done anything nice for her and she thought we must have been hiding something from her. I told Natasha that it was good that she didn’t trust strangers easily. She has been hurt and it’s good to be careful. I wondered though, what I could do to help her know that we are actually trustworthy. I showed our website to her and then gave her my name card. She looked and said, “Thank you for the information.” I suggested that she come see our office the next day so she could see for herself that there really is a place that helps women.
We wanted to take her to safety. We wanted to hug her and comfort her but she was like a wounded cat, scared to trust anyone from getting too close. Natasha wanted to stay where she was for now so Anya arranged to meet her the next day. We told Natasha we would pay for her room. Beng bought cat food and then paid the bill for the two nights she owed. We followed Natasha as she struggled to pull herself up three flights of stairs to her room. She apologized for the mess, but invited us to sit on the bed. The cat was hungry and started crying loudly. Natasha gave him the food and he gobbled it down and cried for more.
There wasn’t much to say. She didn’t know what to do with our kindness and she wasn’t ready to open up her whole life to strangers. We asked if we could pray for her leg and she agreed. We prayed for her in Russian and English. The tears fell again but she didn’t say a word. We finished and she said thank you. Leaving her enough money for breakfast, we pet her cat and said goodbye.
The next day Natasha’s hair was brushed and she was wearing a nice and clean outfit. I noticed the ring around her forearm from drug use. Natasha had told Anya that she had not used for two weeks. Natasha had more energy and smiled more easily. The immediate crisis had past and she had made it through her darkest night. Natasha decided not to accept our help. She said she would survive somehow. “Thank you,” Natasha said, “I will never forget.” I reminded her that she has our number and that if she ever changes her mind she can call. We assured her that we would even gladly meet her for coffee or just to talk.
The cat, now full, stretched out comfortably on the bed. The crisis was over for now and together they would keep fighting for survival their way. We said goodbye and told her we would pay her room bill for that night as well. She thanked us again. We walked away saddened by her decision, but not surprised. Natasha has a hard journey ahead of her, but for those who have been repeatedly exploited, the familiarity of disappointment and abuse sometimes feels safer than the unfamiliar terrain of hope.
We didn’t rescue Natasha from the streets. We might not even see her again. But I don’t believe it was a coincidence we met her. God gave us eyes to see her on one of her darkest nights. Even though Natasha doesn’t trust hope yet, its seed was planted. Natasha isn’t ready for freedom but the next time that dark night comes (and it will) maybe she will find our phone numbers and remember that God sent her a way out. There is still time; there is still hope for Natasha.